The 25 Best Films of the 2000s, Part V: #5-1

#5: Django Unchained:

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I’m going to make a statement sure to spark some controversy among my friend group: Django Unchained is the best film Quentin Tarantino has ever made. Whereas Pulp Fiction represents the writer-director as a youthful force to be reckoned with, with its disjointed narrative structure, extended “cool guy” monologues, and general influence on the filmmaking landscape of the 1990s, Django is Tarantino at his most refined as a filmmaker. The story is the most straightforward and linear of any Tarantino script, the character motivations are real, true and easy to understand, and the direction does not cave to some of his more indulgent behaviors.

My main gripe with Tarantino’s previous film, Inglourious Basterds, was not its example of “revisionist history,” but that it revised history so extensively. I mean, they kill Hitler and end WWII. In Django, Tarantino wisely tells a much smaller tale: its title character, a freed slave, does not end the institution of slavery, but he brings emancipation to a few select people in his circle, and in this way, becomes a relatable hero.

Tarantino also provides us with some unexpected moments of gravitas amid the gleeful manipulation of genre tropes and anachronisms: Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name” plays, and we hear the words, “…and I carry it with my like my Daddy did.” At the same moment, Django is presented with his very own saddle, brandished with his first initial. It’s an incredibly touching moment: here is a slave, a man whose humanity was stripped form him, whose name was not handed down but was forced upon him, now able to establish that name as a free man.

The performances, as with most Tarantino films, are excellent: Christoph Waltz, in particular, steals the show quietly from his scene-chewing peers Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson. Waltz’s character, King Schultz, may also be one of the few Tarantino characters who both begins and ends the film as a totally decent person committed to real morals. As a screenwriter, Tarantino’s greatest strength here is his restraint: he’s smart enough to know what can be joked about and what can’t when it comes to the horrors of the Antebellum South, and he shows maturity in presenting even some of the vilest characters as people to be taken seriously (except, of course, for those buffoonish KKK members).

#4: Whiplash

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This most terrifying film I saw in 2014, Whiplash remains a haunting and unsettling piece of cinema. Its ending, praised not just for its technical merits, but as a triumphant, inspiring, and uplifting conclusion, is sorely misunderstood. At the heart of this film is the question, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is an aspiring drummer at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, where every jazz musician is aspiring to be selected for Terence Fletcher’s (an imposing J.K. Simmons) studio band. Andrew is no different: he idolizes jazz greats like Buddy Rich and toils away in lesser school bands, longing for his chance to prove his worth to Fletcher at whatever personal or moral cost. Fletcher is sadistic in his methods, often citing a story about Charlie Parker having a cymbal thrown at his head by Jo Jones, and Parker’s subsequent growth into one of the greats as a result of the embarrassment. Fletcher sees his role as having to “push people beyond what’s expected of them,” and his extreme lengths take Andrew to his physical and mental breaking points.

At the film’s conclusion, Andrew overcomes Fletcher’s deliberate on-stage sabotage, unleashing a ferocious and groundbreaking drum solo that instantly connects teacher and pupil in a transcendental experience. In that moment, Andrew refuses to leave his recital and put Fletcher’s betrayal behind or beneath him. We see one last image of Andrew’s father shrinking away from the stage doors, horrified at the transformation he’s just seen in his son, unable to recognize what Andrew is becoming. The message of the film is twofold:
1) Fletcher’s method “worked,” but does that make it the right method? Did the ends justify the means?
2) From Andrew’s perspective, is it worth it? To be “great,” is it worth losing one’s soul? Did the means justify the ends?

#3: Birdman or: (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

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I’ll never understand why Birdman became a movie accused of “pretention,” but Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was not accused of the same. Birdman turned the 2014-15 awards season on its head, pulling ahead of critical darling Boyhood and eventually winning the Best Picture Oscar. This is significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the Academy’s general aversion to rewarding comedies, let alone hard-bitten, cynical satires.

Make no mistake: Birdman is a comedy, and often a very funny one. Michael Keaton (playing a meta version of himself) and Edward Norton (doing the same) fist fighting in their underwear borders on farcical, and it’s a sight to behold.

Speaking of sights to behold, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is stunning, getting within mere inches of actors’ faces, capturing such minute details and subtleties in the performances that it’s unlike any film you’ve seen.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is a mentally unstable former movie star whose on-screen superhero persona, Birdman, haunts him in more ways than one. The specter of his cartoony films looms over his efforts to adapt a serious Raymond Carver production for Broadway, where critics are waiting to revile him. What’s more, he’s hearing voices—specifically, the voice of Birdman. The triumph of director Alejandro G. Inarritu is in adding to the mystery of it all: it appears to us as though Riggan actually has the superpowers that Birdman had. Is Riggan a superhero among us, or are we as the audience watching his own delusions and hallucinations?

Birdman has a lot to say, about the nature of criticism, the effects of age on a career, the appreciation of art, and whether we misdiagnose the unstable as the “brilliant.”

Continue reading The 25 Best Films of the 2000s, Part V: #5-1

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Oscar Predictions 2015 – The Major Categories

Well, here we are. The Oscars are less than eight hours away, and there is still no clear-cut frontrunner for Best Picture. This is the tightest race we’ve seen in a long, long, time, and it happened in a way similar to the fiasco of 2010-11. That year, we saw The Social Network virtually sweep all the critics’ awards and the Golden Globe before The King’s Speech swooped in at the last minute to pick up the PGA, DGA, SAG, BAFTA, and finally the Oscar for Best Picture. This year, Boyhood seemed unstoppable, cleaning up nearly every major critics award and the Globe, before Birdman halted its steamroller with wins at SAG, PGA and DGA. However, Boyhood isn’t down for the count, winning the Writers’ Guild Award, as well as the BAFTA, leaving us virtually neck-and-neck for Best Picture.

But that isn’t the only category that has become a nail-biter amongst the major contenders. Here are my final predictions for the eight major awards:

Best Adapted Screenplay

  • American Sniper
  • The Imitation Game
  • Inherent Vice
  • The Theory of Everything
  • Whiplash

General consensus is that Sniper and Inherent Vice are out of the running. Sniper is not really a writer’s film, and Vice was really only nominated as a consolation to Paul Thomas Anderson. I don’t think The Theory of Everything has what it takes to topple the two front-runners here, The Imitation Game and Whiplash. Whiplash was adapted by Damien Chazelle from his own short film, so it’s been nominated throughout awards season as both an adapted and an original screenplay. The Imitation Game has been cleaning up of late, including the Writers’ Guild Award, but its historical inaccuracies have resulted in a mini-controversy, leading BAFTA to toss its Adapted Screenplay to The Theory of Everything. I personally would love to see a Whiplash win here, but I think it’s going to The Imitation Game.

Prediction: The Imitation Game

Best Original Screenplay

  • Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
  • Boyhood
  • Foxcatcher
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Nightcrawler

Let’s be as brief as possible here: Foxcatcher and Nightcrawler are out. This is a three-horse race. The problem therein is that sometimes this award is given to a film too edgy to win Best Picture (Pulp Fiction), which looks like it could be a Birdman victory. Often, it reinforces the choice for Best Picture, which again could go to either Birdman or Boyhood. Finally, it also sometimes goes to writer-directors who have a smaller chance of winning Best Director, which could signal victory for Wes Anderson. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the runaway favorite here, but don’t be surprised if Boyhood or Birdman come from behind, as a win here could mean more wins where it matters.

Prediction: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Supporting Actor

  • Robert Duvall, The Judge
  • Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
  • Edward Norton, Birdman
  • Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
  • JK Simmons, Whiplash

JK Simmons. The end.

Prediction: JK Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress

  • Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
  • Laura Dern, Wild
  • Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
  • Emma Stone, Birdman
  • Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

This one is almost as easy to call as Supporting Actor: Arquette goes home with gold.

Prediction: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Best Actress

It was an unacceptably thin year for leading actress roles. For the second year in a row, the Actor category is loaded, with some “snubs” causing major controversies. However, it seemed the Academy had trouble finding five eligible female performances to even fill out this category.

  • Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
  • Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
  • Julianne Moore, Still Alice
  • Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
  • Reese Witherspoon, Wild

I remember when the resounding narrative was that Reese Witherspoon was going to win this category by a landslide. Then Still Alice came out. Julianne Moore has swept nearly every award ceremony, and I don’t think she’ll stop here.

Prediction: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Actor

  • Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
  • Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
  • Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
  • Michael Keaton, Birdman
  • Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything.

Finally, a category worth debating. Although Bradley Cooper has been making waves as a legitimate threat, this one comes down to a comeback story and a brilliant young actor. Eddie Redmayne and Michael Keaton have been duking it out since the beginning of the awards season, and their battle has crescendoed to tonight. Redmayne is the favorite, and his performance as Stephen Hawking is everything the Academy loves: playing a real-life character, a physical transformation, aging over a period of decades. In short, it screams “Oscar bait.” But is Redmayne too new on the scene to claim an Oscar? If he wins, he’ll be (amazingly) the eighth-youngest recipient of the award at 33 years old. Keaton, meanwhile, is enjoying a career resurgence, and in playing a satirized version of himself, gives a truly transcendent performance. At 63, Keaton would be (even more amazingly) the second-oldest to win Best Actor.

This one is tough to call. I really believe Keaton’s was the better performance, but Redmayne has the edge with more overall wins. However, the Academy loves people who can “play the game” throughout their career, and a win for Keaton would validate a whole career of hard work. I’m calling this one for the underdog, but my confidence is shaky at best.

Prediction: Michael Keaton, Birdman

Best Directing

  • Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
  • Boyhood, Richard Linklater
  • Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson
  • The Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum

This is another close one. In terms of just how close, I’ll quote Mark Harris from Grantland:

Indiewire’s Anne Thompson…is guessing Iñárritu for Director and Boyhood for Picture. The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg, whose track record is impressive, is also predicting a split, but in reverse. Fandango’s Dave Karger, my longtime EW colleague and an awfully good guesser, has both prizes going to Boyhood; Deadline’s Pete Hammond is betting the Birdman ticket. That may not reflect how close a race this actually is — that will remain a mystery, since the Academy never reveals vote totals — but it certainly reflects how close it feels.

Iñárritu won the DGA award. In terms of precedent, that’s huge but not insurmountable. It has led to Best Directing Oscars 16 times in the last 20 years, which is completely meaningful unless you’re one of the three exceptions. Here’s my logic: There’s been a lot of Oscar press, up to and including Wednesday’s New York Times piece by Carpetbagger Cara Buckley (thanks for the shout-out!), about what a close race this is. One of the effects of extended discussion about a close race is that it gives voters a kind of permission to do whatever the h—they want — including to split Picture and Director, which used to be an extraordinary rarity (it happened only twice between 1973 and 1997) and has since become no big deal (it has happened six times in the last 16 years).

Which makes this a difficult call. Does the Acadmey split, and if so, how? Generally, in terms of a split, they tend to reward the director of the “edgier” picture, but give top prize to the more conservative film overall (which would mean an Iñárritu win followed by Boyhood for Best Picture). However, Richard Linklater is no newcomer, and the Academy may want to reward his overall body of work with a Best Directing win here (although the same could be said for Iñárritu). Furthermore, does the Academy want to perpetuate the “splitting” tendency, or will they finally return to honoring both the director and the film together?

My gut tells me Iñárritu has the momentum right now, and I think a Linklater win might be more political than anything. I am probably wrong no matter what.

Prediction: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, Birdman

Best Picture

And here we are. The hardest category to call is, fittingly, the biggest one of them all.

Seriously, nobody knows which film walks away victorious. Look at these odds.

It’s also the one that makes or breaks credibility in a “predict the winners” post such as this. If I get this wrong, none of my other predictions matter. Here’s hoping I don’t miss on Actor, Director, and Picture.

And the nominees are:

  • American Sniper
  • Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
  • Boyhood
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Selma
  • The Theory of Everything
  • Whiplash

This is, again, a battle between Birdman and BoyhoodBoyhood won the Globe and BAFTA. Birdman won the SAG and the PGA.

I have a feeling Boyhood is the more likely candidate to win. It’s the more “conservative” pick of the two. However, a poll of over 50 critics and bloggers thinks that Birdman comes away with a win off its incredible come-from-behind run.

In a situation like this, I have to go with the film I personally want to see win more. Call it an arbitrary way to choose, but I’ll sleep better at night knowing “the Academy got it wrong” than I will picking the film I didn’t like and finding out I abandoned the one I did just before it won.

Prediction: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

And there you have it. My official picks for 2015’s Academy Awards. We’ll see how I did starting at 8pm ET on ABC.